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21 killed in Colombian mine blast

An explosion probably caused by a methane gas build-up ripped through an underground coal mine in Colombia during a shift change on Wednesday, killing 21 workers, officials said.

A similar fatal blast occurred at the same mine four years ago.

Five of the victims died at the mine's entrance and by Wednesday afternoon two bodies had been removed from the mine with another 14 left to recover, said the provincial Colombian Red Cross director, Johel Enrique Rodriguez.

He said rescuers had seen the rest of the bodies, which he said were covered in burns and scattered throughout the 0.6 mile-long tunnel that extended horizontally beneath a mountain.

Gabriel Tamayo, manager of the La Preciosa mine in Sardinata, 255 miles north-east of the capital, Bogota, would not speculate on the cause.

But Colombian Red Cross rescue chief Carlos Ivan Marquez said preliminary indications pointed to a methane gas build-up. A methane build-up was believed to have caused of an explosion at the mine in 2007 that killed 32 miners.

Such a blast "is like a kind of cannon shot and creates a flame within the mine and obviously has tragic consequences," said William Villamizar, governor of the Norte de Santander province, where the mine is located.

The mine met legal safety requirements, said Edgar Fabian Morales, national safety coordinator for the Colombian Institute of Geology and Mining.

But the Ministry of Mining and Energy said it would be shut down, at least temporarily, and Mining Minister Carlos Rodado went to La Preciosa to meet with its managers and victims' families.

The mine was closed for five months after the fatal 2007 blast so a larger ventilation system could be installed for the expulsion of methane. The mine produced 3,300 tons of coal a month.

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